Embodied in these small slivers of lead is so much of England's past and Thames history. Cloth represented 90% of England's exports in the 16th Century and was the main export until the industrial revolution. London controlled 75-80% of this export trade, the Thames its conduit.
Cloth made up a large proportion of London’s £1 million export trade in 1560. It must have been linked with the livelihoods of many, many Londoners and funded so much of London's landscape.
Cloth seals were used across Europe from the late 14th century – the early 19th century as a means of identification, quality control and were part of state administration. The seals were attached to cloth by weavers, dyers or ‘alnagers’, crown officials who assessed whether the goods were of requisite quality and that tax had been paid.
Blank cloth seals were caste in stone moulds
|Stone Cloth Seal Mould (Bagseals.org)|
Cloth seals were usually two discs (occasionally four) joined by a thin strip. One disc had a rivet, the other a hole. The discs were folded together over the edge of the cloth, and hammered together with a die, which imprinted information onto the lead disc.
It’s the intricate designs on so many of the cloth seals which make them appealing. These can include the date and region of production or inspection, touchingly personal maker’s marks or symbols indicating alnage. The latter included heads of royalty, the crown, coats of arms, griffins or lions rampart. Alnage was abandoned in 1724 and sealing was abolished in 1889.
I haven’t found many cloth seals so far, but I’m now on a bit of a mission. I’ve found one I suspect is an alnager’s with a very small and faint crown at the top and either a letter or number below
Other examples of alnager’s cloth seals, all of which will be 300+ years old, can be found below
|Elizabeth I Alnage Cloth Seal 1558 onwards (bagseal gallery)|
|George I Alnage Cloth Seal 1714 onwards (bagseal gallery)|
|17th C Alnage cloth Seal (http://proteus.brown.edu)|
The other one I’ve found I recon has a makers mark on it
I found a few other pictures of seals with makers marks.
|Cloth Workers Personal Cloth Seal 18th or 19th C (Bagseal Gallery)|
|Cloth Workers Personal cloth seal 1775-1825 (Bagseal Gallery)|
Sometimes you can see the texture of the cloth on the reverse, as in this case
Most of the cloth seals found in the UK come from the Thames foreshore, most commonly from the late 15th to early 19th centuries. One theory is that many dropped off textiles during the finishing processes of shearing, dyeing and fulling carried out in the many riverside workshops along the Thames. There was a concentration of dye houses along Thames Street, between Cannon Street and Southwark Bridge. In one study of seals found along the Thames, they identified seals from 24 different counties together with imported seals and many from London dyers.
The beauty of these Thames finds is that the tiny detailed imprints are often perfectly preserved due to the Thames anaerobic mud, whereas the lead found buried in other locations is often so badly corroded that no surface detail remains.
There are a few sites which are helpful in identifying cloth seals, including one put together by Stuart who generously offers to identify your finds, here. Also LM has found loads of cloth seals on the Thames and her potted history is also worth a read here.
It’s taken me a couple of years of mudlarking and the help of mudlarking friends to start spotting lead cloth seals along the Thames foreshore. The trick is to go slowly and scan between the stones and other debris, ‘look through them’ as one friend advised. Once you set your heart on finding a particular type of find, you usually start spotting them and don’t forget to take them down to the finds officer at the Museum of London.